Friday, 14 April 2017

Review: The Jewish War, by Josephus

This had been on my to-read list for years, and I finally finished it this month. The Jewish War covers the build-up and events of the war that occurred when Judea was a Roman province and rebelled in the middle of the 1st century AD.

Josephus is a Jewish historian who also played a part in the war. You may think this made him a little biased, but actually he’s very biased. Fortunately, it’s usually quite obvious (his own role is secondary most of the time, and his dislike of John, son of Levi, eminently deserved).

The background that leads up to the war itself is extensive, and includes a fascinating depiction of Herod (he comes across rather better than he does in the New Testament) in his earlier years. Fighting alongside his brothers as a loyal, bold, brave and intelligent man, it’s intriguing to see his conduct in war (generally noble and wise), his relationships with Roman leaders (diplomatically malleable) and his kingship (quite good, if you leave aside heavy taxation and child killing…).

By the time we reach the preamble to the war itself, the scene is very much set. An unsuitably small garrison coupled with a greedy and malevolent Roman governor (not to mention persistent tension between Roman and Jewish Law) led to the rebellion of the Jews coming about. At first, there was some success for the Jews, but a combination of the competence of Vespasian and Titus (both of whom have their characters portrayed well, although Josephus was on good terms with them) and incessant, brutal Jewish infighting delivered Rome victory.

The description of the factionalism and cruelty is very well-done, and the latter days of Jerusalem (before its destruction) are very sad reading indeed.

In addition to the events in Judea, there are occasional diversions elsewhere, most notably when Vespasian contested mastery of the Empire in 69 AD (this happened in Italy). Comments on external events (Herod’s friendship with Mark Anthony, Cleopatra’s attempts to persuade Mark Anthony to give her Judea as a gift) tend to be made only when they had a clear impact on Judea.

Although Josephus is sometimes blatantly biased (not least about his own brilliance) he puts across the suffering and tragedy of the Jews, most of whom would have sued for peace had the Zealots not been oppressing the masses, very well indeed. The writing style is easy to read. Slight digressions (on terrain or the differing nature of Jewish sects) are usually interesting, but drag every now and then.

I would criticise, as always, the use of endnotes over footnotes. And there are many endnotes.

At the back of the book are the usual maps and six appendices, including (and I appreciate most people won’t be as interested in this as me) a Macedonian calendar, which was still used in that particular time/place (a hangover from Alexander’s empire).

Overall, a good book, an interesting history, and a vivid portrayal of the bitterness of factional infighting and the sorrow it caused.


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